George Weah’s uphill task of pro-poor governance

Karweaye notes that President-elect Weah must set the right tone and direction

The 2017 presidential election runoff has taken place and the National Election Commission (NEC) has announced the result.  Opposition leader, Senator George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) has won. The ruling Unity Party (UP) of Vice President Joseph Boakai has accepted the results. Vice President Boakai deserves credit for accepting defeat graciously, which has helped stave off the threat of mass violence in Liberia. Most people are expecting a new Liberia and are celebrating the first-ever victory of a Liberian opposition party at the ballot box. The only person who can bring this is President-Elect, George Weah; writes Seltue Robert Karweaye.

Congratulations to President-elect George Weah and the CDC. Now, the real work begins. Expectations are at an all-time high from the ordinary people that voted CDC into the Executive Mansion. Managing these expectations should be the key of the president-elect. CDC and Weah have shown that achieving the impossible only takes longer. To sustain this, Weah must set the right tone and direction of his administration in a manner that is both timely and appropriate.

Weah must send the right signals very early on that not only “CHANGE FOR HOPE” has come to Liberia, but in reality, things will change in the shortest possible time. The ordinary people believe in him. They trust him. I am hoping and praying that he is determined to discharge that trust. It is in the light of the above that I decided to write this article to present my thoughts on what I consider critical to President-elect Weah’s success in the coming days, weeks and months.

Weah must neither lose the enormous goodwill that he currently enjoys nor the governance momentum people expect, once he is sworn in. I have seen these avoidable events happened to Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Madam Sirleaf completely wasted her first term in office by trying to do things the old way and with the same familiar set of characters. President-elect Weah must guard against that being our fate.

First and foremost, I am concerned about Weah staying alive and well. Weah is a trained athlete and staying mentally and physically fit shouldn’t be a problem. Matter of fact, his supporters regard him as a careful and thoughtful person. However, his religion, culture, and personality might sometimes combine to create room for fatalism. I believe we must always prepare for the worst while, of course, hoping for the best. In this transition period and thereafter, the President-elect must be especially mindful of potential attempts to cause him physical harm or worse. This may sound far-fetched but the desperation of those that seek power for financial gain has no limits in Liberia. 

My suggestion is that Weah takes a short break and engages in both rest and deep reflection as soon as the transition team begins its work. The political system and economy he is about to inherit are broken. Political actors have become transaction-oriented across parties, including CDC. National security and military institutions have been desecrated and politicized.

Public administration has been excessively corrupted in Liberia. Law enforcement is weak, selective and the justice system so privatized that money often determines judicial decisions at all levels. Liberia’s economic situation is dire and our debts have multiplied in the last 12 years while reserves and financial system stability are currently under very serious pressure.

In my humble opinion, Weah must, through his words, his personal example and the selection of the team around him, unite Liberia by creating a sense of inclusion that gives people of proven honesty, competence, and commitment, roles in his government. The mistake of the outgoing UP-led government of creating a strong appearance of a cartel or cabal of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf must be deliberately avoided. There is a strong noticeable “it’s our own time” sentiment among many CDCians and their allies. This must be strongly resisted.

All across urban and rural Liberia, President-elect Weah then a candidate  preached a new message of change. The cost of governance must be reduced! Reducing our recurrent expenditures from 85% to at least 50% by cutting the huge salaries and incentives from across all three branches of government drastically, including public corporations, should be the key to the Weah-led administration. Banning foreign travels by government officials for now and banning the purchasing of new government vehicles should also be the key to the new administration.  This requires consensus on a sacrifice by all groups. Times will be hard. Fixing what has been broken needs the sacrifices on the part of everyone not only the poor masses.

Our incoming government officials should be humble. The dark windshield vehicles that excessively separate the people from their leaders must be moderated as a matter of conscious and deliberate policy. If anything has worsened dramatically in Liberia for the past 12 years under Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf it is the arrogance, ostentation, etc.  from government officials.

President-elect Weah must set the tone for a new era of modesty. He will have to make ostentation socially abhorrent or detestable. Indiscipline and impunity are some of most serious challenges President-elect Weah will have to confront. Individual discipline, respect for rules and regulations and compliance with the rule of law should be the major tenets of the Weah-led administration. He must remind our citizens consistently to be personally disciplined, respect rules and obey the law. He must require political leaders, including the CDC, to do the same, and as usual, confirm that he will lead from the front.

A key requirement of setting the right tone and direction of the Weah-led government is to choose the right people early to constitute his core team that will work in the Executive Mansion.

Over the years, Weah has worked with many persons in his party and outside his party. I am sure he has assessed their capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. It is vital that he brings this to bear in his choice of personal staff, cabinet positions and leadership of key regulatory institutions as well as public corporations.

These initial decisions all combine will send a very strong signal to political, economic and diplomatic stakeholders about the direction of the new administration in Liberia. Getting these wrong spells doom for any administration. The transition team the president-elect announced recently is the first signal within and outside the party and our nation regarding the direction of his administration and we are watching, especially after seeing the likes of Wilson Tarpeh,  Toga G. McIntosh and  Gbehzohngar M. Findley on the transition team.

As a presidential candidate, I am sure Sen. Weah may have noticed during the composition of  his campaign team, there were groups continuously competing for his attention, struggling for control and seeking to determine who gets on this or that list for various reasons. I am sure the same is occurring behind closed door for a government position.  Each group is important and contributed to Sen. Weah’s success.

The challenge is for Weah to moderate individual and group expectations, discourage factionalism, and make key appointments in a manner consistent with the tone and direction of his administration. The quality and caliber of his personal staff along with a handful of key executive positions will either reinforce the tone and direction of his government or contradict it. The key positions to watch out for are the minister of state, chief of staff and press secretary.  Others are the visible advisory positions – the national security, economic and political advisers. All these are appointments that can be made without needing senate confirmation and even before inauguration so that work can start without delay.

Constitutionally, cabinet appointments are subject to senate confirmation. So are the service chiefs and heads of government bodies like Civil Service Agency (CSA), General Services Agency (GSA), Maritime Authority of Liberia, National Port Authority (NPA),  Liberia National Police(LNP), Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIA), etc. The Minister of State-designate can establish which of these offices have imminent or likely vacancies available so that the search for replacements can begin in earnest. The president is required to nominate cabinet ministers.  It is vital that while our unity in diversity is observed, the caliber of persons to the following ministries will reinforce the tone of direction or contradict it – Ministry of Finance & Development Planning (MFDP), Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Maritime Authority of Liberia, etc.

The next in order of priority for President-elect Weah is the selection of heads of various regulatory agencies like the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), Liberian Medicines Health Products Regulatory Authority, Forestry Development Authority (FDA, Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia, Liberia Anticorruption Commission (LACC),  General Auditing Commission, Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC), etc.

Once again, those nominated for senate confirmation in these positions either raise new questions about the tone and direction of Weah’s government or send a clear signal about the new policy direction. Many of the positions are due for renewal and work needs to start in earnest to search for the most suitable persons that will reinforce Weah’s vision for Liberia.

Other sub-cabinet appointments are key to success, and such must be taken equally seriously. These include the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA), and the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and regulatory agencies. 

The functional SOEs include: the National Port Authority (NPA), Liberia Telecommunication Corporation (LIBTELCO), Liberia Water & Sewer Corporation (LWSC), Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), Robert International Airport (RIA), Liberia Civil Aviation Authority (LCAA), Forestry Development Authority (FDA), National Social Security and Welfare Corporation (NASSCORP).

The history of SOEs in Liberia has been characterized by a high level of corruption, cronyism, low capacity and mismanagement. It is important that even key positions that do not immediately come up for renewal, such as governor of the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL), be made available for new leadership.

I cannot overemphasize to President-elect Weah the importance of setting up a mechanism for recruiting and vetting all potential candidates, via a small committee of five to eight people that will be appointed him. This committee should be separated from the transition committee, and working mostly quietly behind the scenes and reporting directly to him. The committee should be dominated mostly by people that are not too deeply political. I urge the president-elect to prioritize setting up such a committee now!

Let me conclude this article with some issues that I strongly believe will confront the new president in the first week of his administration at the end of January.  Many of them have been brewing for a while but kept under wraps by the outgoing administration of Madam Sirleaf.

According to the World Bank, the Liberian economy is expected to recover from -1.6% in 2016 to 2.6% in 2017.  Why, despite this expected recovery of economic growth, are millions of underemployed young people and adults barely surviving on low productivity activities in the informal sector?  Liberia’s lack of inclusive growth also manifests itself in unequal access to basic services and social programs.

Most Liberians do not have a regular supply of electricity, water or healthcare. A very small percentage is able to purchase generators for around-the-clock supply of electricity. Those who can afford it buy water from private sources and seek medical treatment abroad. They avoid Liberia’s crumbling public schools by sending their children abroad.

The way the Liberian economy is constituted in terms of contribution to output, trade, incomes, and employment plays a big part as well. The structure of the economy makes it virtually impossible for growth to be inclusive, regardless of whether or not there is the political will to do so.

According to the 2013-2014 Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Report that was published in 2016, 100% of Liberia’s revenue comes from the extractive industries.

This revenue is distributed among the three branches of government – legislature, executive, and judiciary. These, in turn, use the allocated funds to undertake recurrent and capital projects. More than 85% of the funds received by the three branches go to recurrent expenditures – the biggest of which is civil service salaries, incentives – with very little invested in capital projects. The little that goes into capital projects is further dissipated by corruption, mainly through contract inflation and abandoned projects. Thus, there are no mechanisms or conduits within the economy to ensure that an extractive industry filters into the real sector of the economy.

The present situation in Liberia is exacerbated by the fact that there is no national safety net program for the poor. These don’t have to be outright handouts. One example is the Chinese policy of employing poor households in public-work projects in exchange for food and other essential items.

Though expectations are high for Weah’s ascendancy to the Liberia presidency, poverty and inequality in Liberia cannot be solved overnight nor will anti-corruption measures alone foster inclusive growth. It requires the development of new growth drivers that harness Liberia’s abundant supply of human capital.

The structure of the country’s extractive sector and the way in which the extractive industry revenue is recycled exacerbate inequality. But developing non-extractive industry drivers through diversification will take time, perseverance and good economic policies. In the meantime, there is an urgent need for safety nets that add value to the economy and also bring much-that add value to the economy and also bring much-needed succor to millions of poor Liberians.

I wish President-elect George Weah and CDC all the best.

Seltue Robert Karweaye, the writer of this article, is currently studying in the Doctor of Public Administration with Specialization in Public Policy program at West Chester University in the USA and can be contacted at or